Never be too proud to borrow: That was one lesson to be gleaned from Washington's season-opening 31-14 thrashing of Stanford. The Huskies prefaced last Saturday's win with a poignant, if unoriginal, tribute to a loved one who had passed on...to retirement. Joining hands, they walked wordlessly through the tunnel and onto the field at Husky Stadium, where they knelt, removed their helmets and pointed them toward the heavens.
Four years ago, before a game against Washington. Colorado's players had staged a similar tribute in memory of their late quarterback, Sal Aunese. "Then they kicked our butts," recalled Husky defensive end Jamal Fountaine, "so we thought it would be a good way to honor Coach James."
It made little difference to Husky fans and players that Don James was alive and well and watching from the press box. His abrupt retirement 13 days earlier, in the wake of unexpectedly harsh sanctions imposed on Washington by the Pacific-10 conference, had been described by Jim Lambright, James's successor, as "a death in the family."
James was tight-lipped and buttoned down; Lambright is less inhibited. In the heat of pregame passion, he has been known to bark at his players, who call him Lambo. After practice on Aug. 25, when athletic director Barbara Hedges told the team that Lambright would be its new head coach, the Huskies responded with a standing ovation and a Wave.
September 12, 1993
The second-guessing of Lambright, who is only the third head coach at Washington since 1957, began on the Huskies' first possession against Stanford. Washington faced fourth-and-one on the Cardinal 24. What to do? Go for it? Or play it safe and kick the field goal? Lambright went for it, and fullback Matt Jones was stuffed by Stanford linebacker Coy Gibbs for no gain. "I'd make the same call again," Lambo said later. "I thought it was important to let the kids know I'm gonna make that sort of call for them."
Against an offensive line that had been billed as one of Stanford's strengths, Washington's Purple Reign defense amassed five tackles for losses and seven sacks. Poor Steve Stenstrom, the Stanford quarterback, will now be grasping for Advil at the mere sight of purple. Last year he was sacked six times and given a concussion in a 41-7 loss to Washington.
That the Huskies' halftime lead Saturday was only 10-7 was due to the inexperience of sophomore quarterback Damon Huard, who was making his first start, and to a young Stanford defense that was playing over its head. It didn't for long. On successive third-quarter possessions Husky tight ends Mark Bruener and Ernie Conwell got behind Stanford's freshman safeties for touchdown catches that put the game out of reach. Husky junior tailback Napoleon Kaufman, meanwhile, rushed for a total of 195 yards. "We couldn't get near him," said Stanford head coach Bill Walsh. "We do not have enough speed on the field to compete with them."
Nothing like a rout to boost the spirits of boosters. Down at the edge of Lake Washington, where Husky fans from upper tax brackets are ferried in after anchoring their yachts, the mood before kickoff had been funereal. "Normally you have a buncha ladies my age dancing on this dock," noted Bob West, Washington '52.
There were plenty of reasons not to dance. That recently concluded Pac-10 investigation had uncovered a total of 15 violations by-Washington. The conference had socked the Husky football program with a two-year bowl ban, deprived the team of 20 scholarships over the next two years and garnished Washington's TV revenues from this season, some $1.4 million.
The Pac-10 seemed not to have considered that the Huskies were first-time offenders, that no coach had committed violations and that James had a reputation for integrity. Outraged by what he called the "unfairness" of the sanctions, James resigned, touching off a chorus of keening among his players. "A bunch of guys trained to play one of the toughest games in the world, and there we are, crying our eyes out, said center Jim Nevelle.
Their tears turned to righteous anger on Saturday when Walsh jogged onto the field. The boos echoed off Mount Rainier. The Cardinal coach's sin? He had spoken his mind at a Stanford booster-club meeting in May. Lamenting the mere lip service paid to academics in big-time college athletics, Walsh singled out Washington, using the word "mercenaries" to describe some Husky players. "When they use up their eligibility...they have none of the skills you are supposed to gain in college," said Walsh. The remarks rapidly found their way onto the Huskies' bulletin board.
Walsh was summarily reprimanded by the Pac-10 for his lack of "civility" and "collegiality" toward a sister school. Informed that he had broken an unwritten rule against sniping at other programs in his own conference, Walsh apologized to James, then to Hedges. He sent James a case of wine, which James distributed to his staff. "They raked us," James told Lambright. "We might as well enjoy it."
Ignored amid Walsh's acts of contrition was the fact that his remarks had been dead-on. According to an NCAA study released in May, only 35% of Washington's players graduated during the six-year period ending in 1992.
There were also unsavory acts by Washington athletes that the Pac-10 chose not to pursue. An investigation into cellular-phone fraud in the Seattle area had led federal agents to several Husky football players suspected of having bought electronically altered phones and used them to make "free" calls in mid-1991. And in November 1992, Husky reserve defensive end Danianke Smith had been arrested by Seattle police officers on four counts of cocaine distribution, charges that were dismissed six months later by King County Superior Court Judge Joan DuBuque because of "the State's mismanagement of the case."
It had seemed out of character for Walsh to supply an opponent with bulletin-board material. Some observers suspected instead that Walsh had outraged the Huskies in order to focus attention on himself—and away from his young team. Such a strategy might also explain his decision the day before the game to disembark from the team plane and conduct TV interviews in Groucho glasses.
Apologies, wine, funny disguises—none of these placated Lambright, who is convinced that Walsh's statements helped persuade the Pac-10 to toughen its sanctions against Washington. Lambright is a youthful-looking 51-year-old with a push-broom mustache and a piercing gaze. On the subject of Walsh, his judgment is clouded by his loyalty to James, whom he served as defensive coordinator for the past 15 seasons. A former Husky defensive end, Lambright graduated in 1965 and then coached various sports at Shoreline Community College in Seattle. He was teaching a figure skating class at Highland Ice Arena when a message came over the public-address system: "Jim Lambright, you have a phone call from Jim Owens."
Lambright had taught his last toe loop. Owens was Washington's head coach, and he needed a linebacker coach. When James replaced Owens after the '74 season, Lambright was one of three assistants he retained. Lambright went on to make his reputation as a top defensive coordinator. After Arizona State ruined the Huskies' homecoming in 1989—Sun Devil quarterback Paul Justin threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-32 upset—Lambright huddled with James. "We said, 'We need to get more out of the athletes we have,' " Lambright recalls.
They did. Borrowing heavily from the Chicago Bears' old 46 defense, Lambright installed a defensive package of stunting, blitzing, eight-man fronts and lots of man-to-man coverage. Since that Arizona State game, Washington has gone 35-5. Number 35 was the Huskies' 10th straight win over Stanford.
As thousands of still-irate fans booed, Lambright and Walsh engaged in a warm postgame handshake at midfield. Afterward, Walsh pooh-poohed the crowd's hostility. "I've been in much tougher situations," he said. Unbidden, Walsh then addressed the furor he had spawned last spring: "I'm hopeful that the [controversy] will generate an atmosphere here where young guys will take their academic work more seriously and work to graduate. That would be a most positive thing."
A most collegial sentiment, most civilly spoken.